The College Football Playoff selection committee will reveal its fourth of six rankings today (7 p.m. ET/ESPN and ESPN App), and it should be strikingly similar — if not exactly the same — at the top. As we head into the final week of the regular season, though, there are numerous scenarios looming that have the potential to create some major headaches for the committee in two weeks.
Or it could be quite simple.
If anything has the power to change the narrative, it’s rivalry games. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, there’s a 12 percent chance that there will be four Power 5 conference champions with one or fewer losses. (The Pac-12 is already guaranteed to have a two- or three-loss champ.) With far more than bragging rights on the line this week, here’s a look at the ideal CFP scenarios for each of the Power 5 conferences — and the nightmares that could derail them — all within the next two weeks:
Dream: No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami are both in. It isn’t far-fetched, considering that the selection committee thinks they’re two of the top four teams right now. The most plausible way for this to happen would be for undefeated Miami to lose a close game to the Tigers in the ACC championship game, but it doesn’t stop there. Two additional scenarios would further legitimize this: Ohio State wins the Big Ten with two or three losses, and/or the Big 12 produces a two-loss champ in either TCU or Oklahoma. What we can assume now: The SEC champ is in. The ACC champ is in. A one-loss Oklahoma is in. An undefeated Wisconsin is in. In order to make room for a second ACC team, the Big 12 and the Big Ten need to stumble. A one-loss Miami would certainly be easier for the committee to justify over a two-loss Ohio State or two-loss Big 12 champ. According to FiveThirtyEight projections, if both Clemson and Miami win this week, the title game winner will be a virtual lock while the loser will still have at least a 1-in-4 chance.
Disaster: Clemson loses to South Carolina but wins the ACC. The committee has already forgiven Clemson’s bad loss to Syracuse, which continues to look worse each week. Would it forgive a second loss to an unranked team? The Gamecocks are at least a respectable 8-3 and bowl-bound, unlike 4-7 Syracuse, but would an ACC title be enough to keep Clemson in the top four? If this happened, would the committee consider ignoring the head-to-head result and ranking Miami above Clemson? The committee uses conference championship games and head-to-head results as tiebreakers when it deems résumés and teams comparable. But in this scenario, it’s easy to argue that Miami and Clemson would no longer be comparable because of the Tigers’ second loss.
Dream: One-loss Oklahoma wins the league and finishes in the top four. This is as good as it gets, as OU would finish the season with wins over West Virginia and a ranked TCU team in the Big 12 title game. With a No. 4 spot already in hand, there wouldn’t be any reason for the committee to exclude the Big 12.
Disaster: Oklahoma loses to Iowa State again, this time in the conference championship game. The Sooners have already clinched a spot and will play either TCU or Iowa State. ESPN’s FPI gives TCU a 99.8 percent chance to reach the league title game, but should four-loss Iowa State pull off a miracle and win it all, the Big 12 is finished. Even a TCU win over OU would likely doom the Big 12, a crushing result considering that the conference resurrected its title game this season for the sole purpose of getting a team in the top four. FiveThirtyEight gives TCU a 30 percent chance to reach the playoff if it wins out — behind both Auburn and Ohio State as potential two-loss champs.
Dream: Undefeated Wisconsin wins the league and finishes in the top four. Plain and simple. It’s easy for the Big Ten and easy for the committee. According to FPI, there’s only a 2.5 percent chance that an average top-25 team would finish 13-0 against Wisconsin’s schedule, one of the hardest accomplishments in the four years of the CFP. The Badgers are in.
Disaster: Three-loss Ohio State wins the Big Ten. The Buckeyes have already clinched the East, but if they lose in Ann Arbor to rival Michigan on Saturday and then beat the Badgers to win the conference championship game, the Big Ten might be left out entirely. Wisconsin has the weakest strength of schedule in the Top 25, so one loss — even in the championship game — could be a CFP dagger. Especially if the teams ranked ahead of Wisconsin all season — Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma — each finish with one loss or better. According to FiveThirtyEight, a one-loss Wisconsin team has an 8 percent chance to make the playoff, compared with a 63 percent chance for a two-loss Ohio State.
Dream: Getting into the CFP next year. With two-loss USC sitting at No. 11 in the committee’s current ranking, it’s clear that the Pac-12’s chances this season are all but over. USC has clinched the Pac-12 South and will play either three-loss Stanford (which it already beat) or two-loss Washington State (which upset the Trojans 30-27 on Sept. 29). ESPN’s FPI gives Stanford an 84 percent chance to win the North, which obviously increases the chances of the conference having a three-loss champion. Even if every Power 5 conference produced a two-loss champ, the Pac-12 would probably still be the odd man out. There are eight Power 5 teams with two losses, five of which still have a chance to win their conferences. Only two have a legitimate chance to make the playoff, according to FiveThirtyEight: Auburn (93 percent chance) and Ohio State (63 percent chance). FiveThirtyEight gives Washington State a 26 percent chance, followed by USC at 18 percent. Until next year, Pac-12. Unless …
Disaster: Missing the CFP next year, too.
Dream: Two teams are in. The SEC’s chances of this happening are even greater than the ACC’s because there are multiple scenarios. First, Georgia and Alabama can get in if Georgia wins the SEC and Alabama’s only loss is a close game in the SEC championship. Second, Auburn and Alabama can both get in if Auburn wins the SEC and Alabama’s only loss is in the Iron Bowl on Saturday. Here’s another possibility: What if we combine the ACC and SEC scenarios, and the top four are two SEC and two ACC teams? Would the committee dare do that? It might if the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences all produce two-loss champions. That would mean comparing a one-loss Alabama and Miami against the likes of a two-loss TCU, Oklahoma, Ohio State or possibly USC. When making those comparisons at face value, how could the committee not choose the SEC and ACC runners-up ahead of those two-loss champs?
Disaster: The SEC is left out entirely. Wait, what?! Here you go: Georgia loses to Georgia Tech but beats Auburn in the SEC title game. One-loss Clemson wins the ACC. One-loss Miami is in the top four. One-loss Big 12 champ Oklahoma is in. Undefeated Big Ten champ Wisconsin is in. (Alabama fans just started screaming.) What about the Tide, which would have lost to Auburn and didn’t even win its division but was in the committee’s top two all season? This would be a spirited debate, to put it mildly: one-loss Alabama or one-loss Miami? Miami at least would have played in its conference championship game and would have a statement win over Notre Dame — better than any win on the Tide’s résumé. Alabama would have two wins over ranked opponents: LSU and at Mississippi State. Miami might have only one in Notre Dame, maybe Virginia Tech. It’s impossible to predict what 13 people would do in that scenario, but Georgia shouldn’t sleep on the Jackets on Saturday — just in case.
It would look worse than Clemson losing to South Carolina because the Jackets would have sunk to 5-5 after losing three of their last four. Georgia Tech is coming into the rivalry game on the heels of a 43-20 loss to Duke, which was in the midst of a six-game losing streak. Following the embarrassing 40-17 loss at Auburn, Georgia sank from No. 1 to No. 7, so although it can change its outlook with an SEC title, it’s already facing an uphill battle in the ranking. A second loss might be too much to overcome, even with an SEC title. It’s possible that the committee would take a one-loss Alabama as SEC runner-up instead of a two-loss SEC champion Georgia. But if Georgia had two losses then beats Auburn, it would knock Auburn out for good while creating a greater debate about Georgia. The Bulldogs would have avenged their ugly regular-season loss to Auburn but would probably still need some help to get back in the top four.